The Challenger League is flourishing in Hawley's Bingham Park

A league of unparalleled athletes has been playing America’s game in Bingham Park since May.

Every year, members of the Challenger League take to the field to play in what Peyton McGrath called “America’s gem,” because he feels baseball is an escape from a basic day.

Sam Gurian, the president of the Wallenpaupack Area Little League, explained that Challenger Baseball gives young athletes who have disabilities a chance to be the “center of attention” while having “their own moment” when on the field.

All Are Welcome

Through the years, there have been some who needed walkers and others wheelchairs, but not all disabilities are physical.

Athletes in the Challenger League range from 5 to 21 years old, and they come from Honesdale, Wallenpaupack Area and Western Wayne school districts.

The league is an experience for children who do not have disabilities as well, since “buddies” from the little league teams “buddy up” by working with the Challenger athletes to give them direction as the game is going on.

The buddy system, he feels gives the buddies insight, causing them to become “humble,” as they get to know one another and play a game together.

There are 20 to 25 “Challengers” in the Wallenpaupack league explained Gurian, which allows for two teams to take part in a classic pick-up game every Saturday.

Alan Cooper, another volunteer and a team manager, is the designated pitcher. He a softball underhand to each batter.

Gurian, who has children in Little League and played when he was a kid, said volunteering is a way to “give back to an organization” that helps kids as they grow up.

Simply, Gurian’s favorite part of being involved is seeing the athletes’ smile and how supportive they are of one another.

Improvements

This year, the field in Bingham Park was upgraded to be more accessible for all of the athletes, since some are in wheelchairs.

Donations and a $1,500 grant from the Pike County Bar Association allowed volunteers to replace the grass that was in the infield with dirt and now, the Secretary of the league Karen Calabrese said the field “looks amazing.”

The field is not exclusively used by the Challengers, but it wasn’t flat before and now the mound was removed and there is a “special kind of dirt,” that has clay and is sterile so grass won’t grow explained Cooper.

Calabrese’s son has played since tee-ball. The Challenger League, Calabrese said gave her son a “sense of community” as he was able to meet other children his age and gave him an awareness of others.

Having seen the buddies work with the athletes, Calabrese believes it changes their lives while they learn lessons.

Baseball, McGrath said, is fun. He pointed out that a key to getting the ball when fielding is being in the “right spot.”

When he gets up to the plate and connects with the ball, that is “great” and something he is quite comfortable doing, as it is part of his “everyday day job.”

McGrath credits his dad for teaching him how to play and hit, but one must have the right placement of their hands on the bat and then simply “follow through” he explained.

Every year, Calabrese said, the community sponsors at least 10 athletes who could not afford to participate. The RailRiders baseball team, consistently gives to the league as well.

Happy Place

Cooper said being on the field, watching the kids is his “happy place” as he sees the expressions on their faces when he pitches, or others who are fielding.

Cooper has been involved in the league for seven years.

There are at least three athletes’ who are capable of connecting the bat with the ball well and so, the fielders must be aware when they are at the plate Cooper said, because they can “crack the ball.”

Every year the Wallenpaupack Challengers scrimmage against a team in Milford, but usually they split and play each other.

But, the big game happens when the athletes go to Skylands Park where they play a game at the stadium.

When the Challengers were first established, there were about 13 athletes. Now in its eighth year, there are nearly 30.

The athletes choose which position they want to play, sometimes with the assistance of their buddy.

Over time, the players’ abilities do improve said Cooper. Challengers like Chase Koell, who has participated since the league started, are motivated by the coaches who work with the players.

Koell, who likes to play shortstop and first base, especially prefers to bat he said.

Great Fun

Since the league started, 12-year-old Aaron Fenkner has been involved and today, he like covering shortstop because fielding is “fun” he said.

Nate Black said hitting is his favorite part of the game. This year is Black’s third year playing and of the positions to play, the 11-year-old Challenger doesn’t have a specific position he prefers to play, because he just wants to play baseball.

Nate’s mom Farrah said there have been multiple benefits for her son, as he’s played in the league as he has gained friendships, improved social skills, learned how to be on a team and built confidence.

Kathy Ross said her twin sons Christopher and Michael have also gained social skills, friendships and a “sense of belonging,” as they have been involved in the league since the beginning.

Also, both of the Challengers love getting up to bat and the smiles they have when they connect with the ball is great.

Without much thought, Becky Hebert said her favorite part of playing is being on a team. As well, she enjoys hitting the ball.

Another Challenger, Skylar Chumard enjoys running and hitting, sometimes even hitting homeruns. But, when it’s his turn to hit, Chumard just goes up to the plate and “boom,” hits the ball he said.

A coach from the Dingman Delaware Little League, John Passaro said the league is wonderful as he can watch the athletes “grow” since they start with little experience and over time, develop skills.

Seeing them progress, Passaro feels is amazing, since there are some athletes who have trouble focusing on the game. But, because of how they “blossom,” that makes the effort worthwhile.

Cali Cavanaugh has been a Challenger since the beginning and of baseball, she likes it all. Being out in the field though, can be a “little scary” she said while it is also “cool.” Hitting however, is “fun!”

An umpire in the league, Paul Menditto said the Challenger division is “absolutely wonderful” as it is a chance for kids to play baseball and every child “deserves to have this kind of fun.”